The Moosehead Lake region is world famous. Tourism, recreation and craftsmanship are all vital to the future economy of Greenville and Maine’s North Woods. In this region, businesses and investors seeking a serene location find an unspoiled landscape where opportunities abound.
Unfortunately, Piscataquis County is one of Maine’s poorest counties, with about 1 in 5 residents living in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
To change this trend, we must be proactive, and leverage our region’s unique character, heritage and spectacular natural resources. One of the key assets in the Moosehead region that offers a fantastic opportunity to help support the growth of our regional economy is the ski area on Big Moose Mountain. It offers one of the most spectacular skiing experiences in the East.
From 1974 to 1986, the state of Maine owned the ski resort on what was then known as Big Squaw Mountain. Recognizing that private ownership should provide a greater opportunity to raise more capital and improve the resort’s outdated infrastructure, the state sold the land and the resort for well below market value. The state also wisely placed requirements on the deed to assure that the ski trails and lifts would continue to operate, and that necessary investments and improvements would be made to keep the resort viable for generations to come.
Moosehead Mountain Resort Inc. purchased the Big Squaw properties in 1995, subject to these deed requirements. Soon afterward the resort fell into neglect and disrepair, with the landowner failing to maintain, let alone improve, the resort and its infrastructure. In fact, the entire resort was closed to the public for a period starting in 2010. In addition, the main lift to the top of the mountain, the main lodge and hotel are all abandoned and in a serious state of disrepair. Fortunately, for the past several years, a local nonprofit organization has been operating the lower portion of the mountain for the benefit of the local residents.
If this were a typical, privately-held resort, these circumstances would be unfortunate. But this particular property has been endowed by the state of Maine with a public purpose. And, so, the circumstances here are tragic. And the victims in this case are those of us who live, work and play in Piscataquis County.
In the face of these circumstances, the state of Maine and the attorney general in 2016 filed a lawsuit against Moosehead Mountain Resort, saying its “failure to invest, maintain, expand and operate the entire ski area and resort has had a devastating impact on the economy of Greenville and surrounding communities.” While there has been procedural wrangling in the courts to date, the state had a big win in May when the court refused to dismiss the lawsuit at Moosehead Mountain Resort’s request and decided that the case has merit to proceed to an eventual trial. A trial could begin as early as later this year.
I believe that this lawsuit provides perhaps the only concrete opportunity we will have to address the issue of the future of the mountain and reach a resolution that is in the best interest of the public.
We are hopeful that the court will ultimately order appropriate remediation to ensure that the mountain fulfills its public purpose moving forward. This could include requiring significant sums be reinvested in the property by the current owner, by a new owner following a sale, or an order requiring the property be returned to the state.
Over the years, we understand that prospective buyers have shown interest in realizing the mountain’s full potential by turning it into an eco-destination for downhill and cross-country enthusiasts. Those plans may now have the opportunity to flourish now that the state has stepped back in to assure its original intent is realized.
In the interim, I commend and support the amazing effort of the local nonprofit that is keeping a portion of the ski area open on a shoestring budget. Imagine what we could realize if we once again had a fully operational winter sports facility on that mountain?
I believe this mountain should once again serve as part of the “Crown Jewel” of the Moosehead region’s four-season outdoor experience and as a cornerstone of our local economy.
Steve Levesque is president of the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corporation.
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